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The condemned: The Banana Splits Movie (2019)

The plot: There’s a witty and beloved slice of pop culture entertainment that features cuddly animatronic creations becoming homicidal after hours, and the ensuing story focusing on the desperate battle for survival for humans unlucky enough to find themselves trapped with the murderous robots. That entertainment is called Five Nights At Freddy’s, and it’s a wildly popular video game that has spawned numerous sequels, three novels, guides and log books, and an in-development film adaptation. The Banana Splits, by contrast, was an extremely short-lived Saturday morning children’s variety program that ran for only 31 episodes, from 1968 to 1970, then played intermittently in syndication until 1982. It is mostly remembered by a small cadre of fans of weird-TV Svengalis Sid and Marty Krofft, who also created the better-known H.R. Pufnstuf. In other words, the first question to be asked is, why take a property almost no one knows about—especially the target audience for this film, assuming they’re courting people under 40—and make a movie that seems to assume anyone watching knows what it’s sending up? The answer, one would have to assume, is, “Because we couldn’t get the rights to Five Nights At Freddy’s.”

Admittedly, there’s nothing else to do with these creations in 2019, so one may as well have them start murdering people. The movie takes place in a world where The Banana Splits was never canceled; the show just carried on, year after year, somehow surviving (with inexplicable popularity, no less) in a tucked-away corner of a TV studio lot. Cut to the present day, where mom Beth Williams (Dani Kind) has scored tickets to the live taping of the show for her Banana Splits-obsessed son Harley’s birthday. Along for the trip are her 19-year-old son, Austin; longtime husband, Mitch (11 years married, so I guess he’s Harley’s dad, but not Austin’s); and local kid Zoe, who resists attending (he quite understandably thinks Harley is weird, in no small part because Harley seems way old enough to have outgrown this kid’s show) but is pressured into going by his mom.

We meet the Banana Splits—robotic puppets Fleegle, Drooper, Snorky, and Bingo—as their creator, Karl, applies software updates to their systems, centered around the Prime Directive: The show must go on. So when a new VP of programming cancels the series, making this the final taping, the Splits’ programming kicks in and they take deadly control of their fates, killing any adults remaining on the lot and imprisoning the children from the audience in a state of permanent viewing, as the felt-and-metal constructions perform a bloodthirsty new version of the show. Beth and her family, along with a handful of other attendees singled out for a meet-and-greet with the Splits after the show, must figure out how to survive the night and shut down the robots before they turn the Williams’ body parts into their bloody playthings.

Over-the-top box copy: Showing admirable restraint, the only words on the front of the Blu-ray other than the title is the tagline “Tra la la terror!” Flip it over, and you get the not-terribly-inventive variant “Lights. Camera. Terror.” I guess someone really wanted to suggest this movie would elicit terror, which is a bold marketing stance for something called The Banana Splits Movie.

The descent: It’s not that I’m a big fan of the hokey Americana pleasures to be found in the sticky-floored palaces of amusement-park entertainments masquerading as children’s dinner theater, best embodied by the Chuck E. Cheese (full name: Charles Entertainment Cheese) and Showbiz Pizza franchises littering our nation’s exurban landscapes. (If any childless adult tells you they like spending quality time in those places, alert the authorities.) But I do have a weird nostalgia for the cut-rate animatronic performances that serve as the symbolic frontmen for those odd admixtures of Coney Island arcade games and germ-infested ball pits.

When I was growing up, I remember it as being a huge fucking deal any time a kid got lucky enough to host his birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese; the rest of us would freak out and spend large amounts of time planning our escapades in the weird maze that seemed to stretch the entire range of the building, though it was probably only like 20 yards total. That nostalgic fondness for animatronics got parlayed into curiosity by the trailer for this movie. Like most people, I hadn’t heard of the Banana Splits, so discovering it was a real TV show added an extra frisson of interest, aided by the knowledge that these giant felt-covered creations would be straight-up murdering people.

The theoretically heavenly talent: Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Banana Splits!! ...No? Not ringing any bells? How about Dani Kind, a recurring guest star on Wynonna Earp? Nothing? Actually, animation fans might recognize the name and/or voice of Eric Bauza, a longtime voice actor who’s done everything from Phineas And Ferb to DuckTales and who currently voices Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and more for the new Looney Tunes. He voices the Splits themselves, who all sound semi-similar with robotic catchphrases they periodically spout, though not so often that I didn’t completely forget they could talk in between each announcement, meaning it startled the hell out of me each time some preprogrammed proclamation, ironically reclaimed for their killing spree, emitted from their flopping maws.

The execution: I have no idea if the makers of The Banana Splits Movie were contractually bound to deliver a film more or less 90 minutes in length (the movie premiered on Syfy, perfectly fitted to a two-hour programming block with commercials). But for all the fun of watching giant animatronic children’s characters gruesomely execute people, this thing drags. By the halfway point, there is exactly one murder; that is a very long walk for what’s basically a one-joke premise.

Still, I want to give The Banana Splits Movie credit for not pretending these are beloved icons we all know and love from childhood. Other than a quick opening sequence that introduces the TV show in a roughly faithful recreation of the original series, the movie doesn’t bother doing anything other than slotting them into a narrative that could have just as easily been done with original creations. Instead, we spend a little too much time dealing with the kitchen-sink drama of this family, enduring not one, but three endless scenes in which Beth and Austin monologue about the pain of dealing with losing their family some dozen years earlier, and how that’s affected their personalities. Spoiler alert: We don’t give a shit that Beth used to be brassier and now meekly accepts what life throws her way. We want to watch her murder animatronic animals.

Besides, the family dynamics are such that you can’t even believe these people are related, let alone have been living together their whole lives prior to the start of this movie. While Harley is actually super endearing, a huge nerd with no friends who you just want to hug and reassure it gets better, Dan Savage-style, the replacement husband, Mitch, is the kind of asshole so absurd, he seems more cartoonish than the Splits themselves. Here he is telling Harley—his own child, mind you, not his stepchild—that he’s too old to be calling him “Daddy.” On the kid’s birthday, bee tee dubs; father of the year, over here.

After a car ride to the studio lot where the Banana Splits show is filmed (and some of the lengthiest, most pointless automatic dialogue replacement conversations I’ve ever heard in a film, accompanied by deeply exciting shots of the family car turning left, then right, then ambling slowly through the parking lot—easy there, Michael Bay), we get to the audience line waiting to get in to the show, where we meet the other main characters: Paige, the show’s page (eye roll); a couple of wannabe social media influencers there to document their trip; and a stage dad there to push his tween daughter in front of producers in hopes of getting her on television. Mitch, per his presumable description in the script as “a total shithead, no other defining qualities,” continues to be the worst, but at least he’s so comically awful that it’s kind of funny at times. Here’s his response to his only son almost getting killed when he’s nearly run over by the Banana Splits mobile:

In addition to the aforementioned tedium of character drama sequences that go on way longer than they should, there’s a general malaise to the script that makes it feel shoddy and slapdash, like they couldn’t be bothered to come up with plausible reasons to drive the story forward. As a result, characters tend to do things for no logical reason other than for plotting. To wit, here’s a conversation about a producer saying he’s canceling a long-running and immensely popular and profitable show, for no other reason than he personally doesn’t care for it, a situation that has happened exactly zero times in the history of Hollywood.

They couldn’t have just included one line about how this weird and anachronistic children’s show was no longer popular? What, did the acquisition of rights to the characters include a line in the contract about how no one could suggest the Splits are anything less than America’s sweethearts? Perhaps, whenever the Splits aren’t onscreen, all the other characters could stand around saying, “Where’s the Splits?

Once the show within the film is over, and no one’s left but our small group of lucky potential victims, things pick up a bit, simply because it’s fun watching these goofy-ass characters kill in gory ways. Drooper seems to take the lead, as he receives an update to his programming early on that features—mixed in among lines of code—the words “THE SHOW MUST GO ON” in giant red letters, letting us know these ’bots will continue to try and entertain by any means necessary. (If that was too subtle, the Splits’ engineer has also made it so that their eyes can turn red, murderbot-style, in the kind of nonsensical flourish that there should’ve frankly been more of, if they’re so intent on leaving rationality so far behind.) And once the deadly intent of the Splits becomes clear, some of the moments meant to create ominous tension are genuinely funny in their stupidity, like this scene of Mitch walking away, only to have the camera slowly pan in on Snorky watching malevolently in the distance.

But all of this is ultimately in service of the kills, and there are a few good ones. The sole human performer from the show (a surly drunk) gets killed via Drooper shoving an oversized novelty lollipop down his throat, and the stage dad gets a blowtorch to the face, made better by Drooper doing a little dance right in front of him as the guy burns. In general, however, it’s actually surprising how straight the movie plays these kills, with nary an arched eyebrow or moment of ironic distance to be found. It’s just gruesome murders of the variety you might find in any slightly over-the-top slasher film. Watch how somberly The Banana Splits Movie treats a social media douchebag getting bisected via a magician’s sawing-in-half box:

It’s too bad the pacing and stretched-out feel really do this movie in, because the occasional bright spots show the fun, disreputable potential lurking under the blandly polished sheen of the film. It ends, as seemingly every movie of this ilk must these days, with a blatant setup for a sequel. But for every macabre murder and portentous jump scare attempt, there’s a painfully drawn-out scene that could’ve used some judicious editing. The movie doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be funny or not, and it ends up in a muddled gray area that doesn’t lean efficiently into either comedy or horror. At least we’ll always have the incredibly weird and off-putting way that Paige pronounces “the Ba-NA-na Splits”:

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: It’s just not enough fun to merit such recognition. I guess we’ll see if the eventual Five Nights At Freddy’s film manages this kind of material more effectively.

Damnable commentary track or special features: No commentary track. Instead, we get a few promo-style features of behind-the-scenes hype: one called “Behind the horror” talking about how much fun it was to make the film, another focused on the production design, and then a satirical two-minute news report about the events of the film: “Breaking News! The Banana Splits massacre.” This news segment breathlessly reports that “the casualties include hundreds of studio audience members.” That news team might get fact-checked, as I counted roughly 50 people watching the Banana Splits do their twee little dance routine.

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